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Friday, March 16, 2012

March Madness, Syracuse vs UNC Asheville, & the Science of Referee Bias

Tonight, during March Madness, the main story was about the game between the #1 seed in the East (Syracuse) and the #16 team, UNC Asheville. As a disclaimer, I am a HUGE Syracuse fan (LET’S GO ORANGE). Besides the possibility of the near upset that took place, the biggest aspect of the story was several calls by the referee that went against UNC Asheville that helped Syracuse.


This included a no goal tending call when goal tending seemed to take place, a lane violation call towards the end of the game that actually was correct, and the referees giving the ball back to UNC Asheville after the ball bounced off of Syracuse player, Brandon Triche, followed by a UNC Asheville player hitting into him. There was some question as to whether Triche was fouled before the ball went off of him, causing him to go out of bounds.

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with anything medical you ask? Good question. Nothing. But MedFriendly is a site that not only explores medical topics but psychological topics as well. Part of psychology is the study of bias. Some UNC Asheville fans believe that the officials were biased against them, which is what resulted in the calls above.

So, I tried to see if anyone had explored the notion of officiating bias scientifically in college basketball. I found one study, performed in 2009. The study examined officiating bias (in terms of foul calls) in 365 NCAA basketball games during the 2004-2005 season. Results indicated that officials are more likely to call fouls on the team with the fewest fouls, making it likely that the number of fouls will tend to even out during the game. The greater the difference of fouls between the two teams, the higher the probability that a foul would be called against the team with fewer fouls. The researchers found a significant bias towards officials calling more fouls on the visiting team (probability as high as 70%), and a bias towards foul calls on the team that is leading.

All in all, the evidence indicates that there was not bias against UNC Asheville by the referees because they met all conditions in the study by which one would expect bias to be in their favor as opposed to Syracuse. That is, they were losing at the time, had less fouls (Syracuse was in the bonus), and technically were considered the visiting team on a neutral court due to their lower seed and greater distance from their home geographical location. Ok Syracuse. Now go beat K-State!

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